DETROIT – “That’s Mom’s favourite,” the woman says with fan-club glee.
Wearing a Red Wings T-shirt nearly as vintage as the barn they left, she taps the closest son to her and motions to Kris Draper.
The four-time Stanley Cup champion is grinding through the dirty areas of a red carpet lined on both sides with red-and-white-clad Detroit Red Wings supporters ranging from ages baby to grandfather.
It’s a long, sun-blessed walk across the expansive fan plaza leading to midtown Detroit’s shiny new attraction.
As Draper makes his way into Little Caesars Arena, the town’s new home for hockey, he stops to grin for every smartphone and Sharpie his name on sweaters barring names like Yzerman and Howe, Larkin and Nyquist.
Behind him comes Larry Murphy and Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom. Chris Chelios is in the building. Champions all.
As the kids hang over the railing clutching their markered-up Red Wings snapbacks, Dad demonstrates how The Mule used to plant himself in The Joe’s crease front and tip pucks till the lights screamed red.
“Mr. Lidstrom!” the smallest boy beckons. “My dad wants a selfie with you!”
The alumni, naturally, are followed by today’s Wings. Tomas Tatar dishes high-fives. Henrik Zetterberg, a “MR. I” pin fastened to the lapel of his tailored suit, gets close enough to the kids, they might smell his beard oil.
The whole family is happy, and puck drop on a brand-new era isn’t for another four hours.
The Detroit Red Wings of today are emblematic of a franchise, of a city in transition. Fitting, then, that their upgraded home — a marvel that just elbowed Edmonton’s as the NHL’s most impressive contemporary arena — simultaneously embraces the future and the past. And pulls off the paradox with style.
Endings and beginnings, teardowns and rebuilds. This is Detroit hockey, and it’s beaming bright over centre ice from the crispest high-definition Jumbotron you’ve seen.
The Magic Man vanished a year ahead of his scheduled curtain.
They lost Gordie.
They lost Mr. Mike Ilitch.
The Streak died.
The Wings skated out The Joe and away from the riverfront to spark a $2.1-billion, 650,000-square-foot sports-and-entertainment District revitalization and be closer to the other major sports teams. Flood the streets and, on a February night, Dylan Larkin could probably skate to Comerica Park or Ford Field in the time it takes to kill a penalty. They even found a new roommate who plays basketball.
Pavel Datsyuk, speaking to a Russian reporter this fall, said he believes it’s good that his former team missed the playoffs last spring, as if trying to live up to the idea of what they used to be was hooking them down.
Detroit has $0 salary-cap space, rights to the only restricted free agent still threatening to bolt for Europe (Andreas Athanasiou), and eight picks in the first six rounds of the 2018 draft. No reasonable hockey person expects their 36-year-old captain and best player to skate through the end of his 2021 contract. Google won’t find an analyst that pictures them anywhere but the Atlantic Division basement.
The Red Wings were named such precisely 85 years to the day of Little Caesars Arena’s opening game Thursday.
The last time the Winged Wheel entered October with a goal of ending a post-season drought Tim Berners-Lee was beginning work on a little invention called the worldwide web, Germany had just become one country, and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorachev was preparing an acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Also: The Soviet Union was a thing that existed.)
After touring the 21,000-seat facility, its stunning open concourse, the 60 private suites equipped with gas fireplaces and iPads that order your food, the swanky and spacious dressing room, Lidstrom wished Detroit had done this 10 years ago.
Once the Ilitches began raising the new barn, promising an influx of 1,000 jobs, an online petition begged for it to be christened the Gordie Howe Arena. Instead, it’s named after the family’s pepperoni pie empire.
But Howe’s presence is here in big, meaningful ways. The iconic statue of No. 9 mid-slapshot has make the trek from 600 Civic Center to 2645 Woodward, a 30-foot portrait of Howe looms on a brick wall opposite the upper concourse, and an empty stall with the “HOWE 9” nameplate rests empty in the dressing room corner.
LCA is not The Joe. The placement of the seats, every one of them red, was modelled after Montreal’s Bell Centre in effort to give the sense like the fans are on top of the players. The old championship banners and retired numbers are accounted for, but they’re now retractable. LED screens are embedded into the boards, which no longer flip off fat, wild rebounds. A mini Red Wings Hall of Fame exhibit draws gawkers on the upper concourse. An organist plays live, but familiar arena jams from Bon Jovi and Eminem ring, too. Lineups for the restrooms are shorter.
Commissioner Gary Bettman asked club CEO Chris Ilitch if he’d found a flaw in the rink. Mike’s son said there wasn’t a thing he’d fix about his father’s “revolutionary” project.
“I like this a lot better than Joe,” says rookie Martin Frk. The kid scored his first NHL goal tonight, on his 24th birthday.
Pistons star Andre Drummund said it feels like the NBA has moved into the Red Wings’ home, and he’s right. This is an arena built with hockey foremost in mind, the Barclays Center of an alternate universe.
“We’ve got everything we want and need in here,” says goalie Jimmy Howard. “The Ilitches said they were going to build the best building in the world, and they did it.”
The grand opener was cast in a ceremony of import. You could feel a sense of time and place. Renewal.
There were 21,000 silent prayers for Vegas, a moment of respect for Dave Strader, “Mr. I” patches stitched on the left shoulder of every Red Wing, and Tom Petty “Runnin’ Down a Dream” during the first prolonged video review.
“It was an event. We know it,” says Detroit coach Jeff Blashill. “You soak those type of things in.”
Zetterberg scored the winner, and the locals sang “Don’t Stop Believin’” at full throat as the guys in red hung on to claim a 4-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild.
Tomorrow, the hockey team’s record will be as perfect as the building they’ve only recently figured out how to drive to.
“First couple mornings you were probably halfway to the Joe before you turned,” Zetterberg says.
“But now it’s our home, and it is beautiful.”